The 1876 Meehling Murder & Hanging, Barboursville, West Virginia
Backstory and Context
Charles Phillip Meehling was born in 1845 in Germany to Charles L. and Catherine (Lutz) Meehling. His family immigrated to Ohio via New York City in May 1850. Matilda Mays was born in 1847 in West Virginia to Hamilton and Nancy (Stanly) Mays. Matilda and Charles were married on November 6, 1866 in Cabell County by Saul D. Jones. They had four children: Elizabeth, born 1867; John, born 1869; Charles F., born 1871; and Joseph, born 1873. By 1870 Charles had acquired some farm land near his parents, whose farm was located within sight of Davis Cemetery at the headwaters of Little Cabell Creek. He also bought 100 acres from Robert Stanley and his wife for $100 in 1871, and then bought 114 ¾ acres from the bankruptcy sale of Robert F., Samuel E. and William F. Dusenberry for $690.59. This latter land was in the Martha area, on McComas Road/Mill Creek. Like most people of that time, he continued working the farm and living a quiet life.
It was around 1873 or 1874 that Charles hired a man named Ed Williams to do work on the farm. He was about 21 years old, and was said to be part African American. Over the course of the next two years Williams had a romantic relationship with Matilda. Charles was certainly suspicious, but he could not find any proof that his wife was in love with Williams. On one occasion he did see her sit on Williams’ lap, and as he got his shotgun, Williams left the house, calling out, “Matilda, darling, throw me my gun.” Charles forgave her, but soon she and Williams began planning to kill him. They tried to secretly poison Charles twice, starting in about December 1875, first using arsenic, and later laudanum, but both attempts failed to render immediate results because the wrong dosage was given. Dr. Beardsley told Charles he needed to leave home and go to a hospital, but he said he wanted to stay at home with his children. He was dying, but slowly, and Matilda and Williams could wait no more. Matilda sent her eldest daughter, Elizabeth, off to stay with her grandparents to keep her from witnessing their actions.
On the evening of Wednesday, January 19th, Matilda sent Williams to murder her husband while he was sleeping. The date was also frequently reported as occurring on Sunday, January 16th, but they kept lying about the date, and it was said that a Mr. Charles Miller saw Charles on Wednesday. Reportedly Charles saw Williams with an ax, and said to his son John, “Oh Lord he’s going to kill me. Get the prayer book and pray for me.” Williams hit Charles several times with the ax, before returning to Matilda. He said that Charles was not yet dead, but that he would not return. She then went and cut Charles’ head off with a butcher’s knife. Immediately they collected the remains and threw them in the stable. Later, after attending a local church meeting, they let the horses in the stable to make it seem like Charles was trampled to death. They also found that their actions had awakened John, and were ready to kill him, and they threatened him with death if he ever told what he had seen. Even during the trial, he would not speak of it until he was assured safety; when he did testify, it made the whole court tear up.
Within the next few days, Charles’ absence was felt and his friends began inquiring about his whereabouts. At first Matilda and Williams lied, but their stories began to contradict; this, coupled with Matilda’s general unconcern and the fact that Williams was now living with her, raised concerns that something was wrong.. On January 22, Taylor Clark, Charles’ brother-in-law, and Morris Wentz went to Sheriff D.I. Smith, and his Deputy, George F. Miller, and got a warrant for their arrest. When the pair was arrested they submitted quietly but claimed that nothing was wrong. Williams said that he supposed that Charles left his wife in anger and determined to live apart from her. When they had been taken out of the house, Williams asked to run back in and get his tobacco from a safe drawer. Taylor said he would get it, and when he got to the specified drawer, he found a pistol instead of tobacco. As they headed to Barboursville, Matilda appeared very nervous and scared, but Williams kept his composure, even joking with the officers. However, when the door to the brick jail “sent forth its mocking clang,” he lost his nerve and fell backwards onto a bed in his cell. He then sat up and buried his face in his hands.
As they were being arrested, the officers saw marks on the floor of the house that they were sure were more than grease, but they said nothing of it and determined in their minds to return. When they came back they began to search the house until they heard the family’s dog howling and acting strangely, so they went outside. The dog was tied, which Taylor Clark had noted previously, to which Williams replied that he had become dangerous. Someone said, “That dog knows something, let’s follow him.” So they let him loose, and he led them to a pile of corn stalk-covered manure in the stable. He stopped there and howled. They dug about 18 inches down and found Charles’ corpse.
The community was outraged when it looked of the murders, and many people demanded that Williams and Matilda should be executed. Around 8:00 PM many locals came together, got rope, and headed for the jail. The crowd was now a mob, said to be the largest ever gathered there at the time, all determined to lynch the fiends, with “cries…from every quarter, ‘Hang the demons,’ ‘Burn them at the stake.’”
Meanwhile, clearer heads in the crowd, including Captain J.I. Kuhn, Prosecuting Attorney L.C. “Kooney” Ricketts, and Reverend George W. Young, were yelling for order. Rev. Young was given an hour to pray with Williams, and shortly after 8:00 PM he and Capt. Kuhn went into the jail. Williams started by treating their advice with levity, but he then heard the mob outside. He then asked to be taken into Matilda’s cell, which he was granted. Rev. Young said that the prisoners should confess, as an infuriated mob was outside. They started by denying everything, with Williams supposedly claiming that he killed Charles for a three-year-old mare colt that Matilda offered him, but as they heard the mob get even more fierce, he began to confess. Afterwards, Matilda also confessed, and said that she was the cause. The details of the confessions were related to the crowd, and the minister was told to hurry. He went back in, and Williams wept and exclaimed several times, “God forgive me!” When the mob’s leader said, “Time’s up!” he shook horribly. After Capt. Kuhn and Rev. Young exited the jail the mob began to force their way in. Jailer Jim Shelton was forced to open the door in the face of death threats. The crowd rushed in and retrieved Williams, who was on his knees praying for mercy from God and the mob. He was dragged to the front yard of the adjacent county courthouse (at this time Barboursville was the seat of Cabell County) where a rope had been tied to a tree branch with a barrel to serve as a scaffold. The noose was adjusted around his neck as Rev. Young and Prosecuting Attorney Ricketts yelled for his life to be spared. He begged to live longer, that he was in no condition to appear before God, and that they should show him mercy, but the crowd responded with a mocking laugh, and the words, “Did you extend mercy to Meehling? Did you give him time to prepare for death?” Before he could be hung, Capt. Kuhn grabbed the barrel to prevent its being knocked over. This was to no avail, however, as a man named Brumfield inserted a large hickory cane into the barrel’s tap hole and forced it from under Williams, who fell to the ground at first as the rope was too long. This was quickly fixed, however, and it is said, though probably exaggerated, that he hung there for 15 minutes of terrible agony before he died. It was cleverly stated by the Huntington Advertiser that, “Williams, the murderer is not the only man whose death has been caused by the tilting of a barrel, the only difference is, the barrel was not supplied with a spiggot (sic).” Later it was alleged that the branch from which he hung later died before the rest of the tree.
Mrs. Meehling was then brought out, totally dazed, silent, and in a state of shock, and they placed her in front of Williams’ dead body. She had managed to convince a certain Dr. V.B. Moss that she was pregnant (a lie), and he fought for her life along with Rev. Young, Capt. Kuhn, and Ricketts. Between this fact and that she was a woman, no man could be found to put the rope around her neck. After being forced to touch the corpse, she was placed back in the jail, and the mob lingered around until shortly before midnight, but not before declaring vengeance on anyone who would try to remove the body of Williams.
Early that Sunday morning, when it was still dark, “Capt. Kuhn procured some muslin and, groping his way to the scene, climbed upon a box which he carried with him and in the pitchy darkness drew the muslin over the body so that on Sunday morning it was seen swinging back and forth under the force of the wind, completely enshrouded in white, but later in the day it was removed.” It was placed in the courthouse hall until the coroner ordered its burial, when it was, “hauled out of town on a wagon, meeting on the main street a hearse containing the body of his victim.” Williams’ remains were buried at Kyle Cemetery.
Matilda was committed to jail without bond the following Monday, January 24th, by Justice Thornburg. During this time, about a week and a half after her arrest, this was said about her: “Mrs. Meehlings (sic), the confessed accomplice in the murder of her husband, is beyond doubt the most wretched female ever incarcerated in the jail at Barboursville. To her, death would be a most welcome messenger, but her guilt stained heart has not the courage to suggest suicide; and did she entertain such a thought, her hands would be too cowardly to assist in the self-murder. By day gory stained phantoms flit before her gaze, while her sleep is accompanied with dreams of skeletons and fiends dance around her bedside, their mocking laugh deriding her for the assassination of her husband. When asked a few days ago, what troubled her the most, ‘the past or the future,’ she answered, ‘the horrible past.’ She paces up and down her strongly barred room wishing for death, and occasionally dashes her hands into her eyes as if to keep from her gaze the awful scenes attending the inhuman butchery of her husband. She has wasted in flesh to such an extent since her imprisonment, as to present the appearance of an animated skeleton, her appetite has deserted her, her mind is on the verge of loosing (sic) its sway, and terrible indeed and must be her expectations, respecting the issue of her approaching trial for murder.”
She was held until March 6th when she was indicted in the court of Judge Ward, 9th Judicial Circuit, West Virginia, by a grand jury consisting of: W. Lewis Peters, foreman; William E. Ray, Louis Diehl, I.F. Stewart, Julius W. McCullough, Paul H. Davis, F.M. Ferrell, William L. Childers, Joseph M. Blackwood, Charles H. Summerson, S.S. Simmons, Moses Hatfield, Thompson Morrison, H.J. Samuels and George E. Thornburg. Three indictments were filed against her, and one was returned as a true bill.
On March 7th, the trial began with Judge Evermont Ward presiding, L.C. Ricketts as prosecuting attorney, and William T. Thompson and C.E. Smith as defense attorneys. On March 8th, she was brought into the court by the jailer. She informed the court that she had no legal counsel, and was too poor to afford any, so she was appointed Thompson and Smith. They moved the court to quash the indictment and demurred generally to it. Both motions were overruled. Matilda then pled not guilty, and was remanded to jail.
On the 9th of March, this case was brought before a jury. The jury consisted of: James H. Vandiver, Noah Bowen, Henry Spangenburg, John Ferguson, H.S. Clark, Benjamin Ray, John Gwinn, A.H. Melrose, Reason Wheeler, Calvary Keaton, Matthew Irwin and Winchester Adkins. After the jury was chosen, Sheriff Smith was given charge of the jury and gave the usual order that they should not speak to anyone or let anyone speak to them regarding the case. The court was then adjourned until 8:30 AM on the next day. Matilda was again remanded to jail. On the 10th, Sheriff Smith and Deputy Miller brought her back into court. The jury found her guilty of murder in the first degree as stated in the indictment, and said that she should be confined in the penitentiary. She was remanded to jail and court was adjourned. On Saturday, the 11th of March, she was again brought into the court, and asked by the judge if she had anything to say before she was sentenced. She said no, and was then sentenced to life imprisonment at the West Virginia State Penitentiary at Moundsville by Judge Ward.
Matilda most likely arrived at the imposing prison through its Civil War-era “Wagon Gate,” and was kept in a 5’x7’ cell in the Women’s Quarters level, the third, of the facility’s administration building. The 1880 census records her as being a prisoner there and that her occupation was “Prison Duties.” She died of consumption and tuberculosis on October 28th, 1882, and was buried on October 29th in the prison’s south yard. The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, October 31st, 1882 records that, “The unfortunate woman had suffered with consumption for many months past, and knew she could not recover and with a bravery seldom met with gladly awaited the summons that was to cancel her debt to an outraged law, both divine and human, and end her imprisonment and earthly troubles at once. Fears of future punishment never appeared to enter her mind as she cheerfully bade Capt. Lowe ‘good bye,’ adding that ‘she would never see him again,’ the evening she died. She was buried in the prison burying ground Sunday. Rev Loomis, of the M. E. Church, lately of this city performing the funeral ceremony. Mr. Loomis also preached the dead woman’s funeral sermon at the prison chapel.” Her body was moved in 1899 because Moundsville issued an ordinance that the prisoners’ bodies must be taken out of the city. Hers was reburied in either the prison-owned White Gate Cemetery and is now unmarked due to flooding there, or in the potter’s section of Mt. Rose cemetery, also unmarked.
14 Feb 1909, Page 9, "Cabell County's Greatest Tragedy and First Execution", The Huntington Herald-Dispatch, Huntington, WV. Cabell County Library Local History Collections, Huntington, WV.
1870 U.S. census, population schedule, NARA microfilm, Year: 1870; Census Place: Barboursville, Cabell, West Virginia; Roll: M593_1685; Page: 543B; Image: 444; Family History Library Film: 553184; digital image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com).
1880 U.S. census, population schedule, NARA microfilm, Year: 1880; Census Place: Moundsville, Marshall, West Virginia; Roll: 1407; Family History Film: 1255407; Page: 158A; Enumeration District: 192; digital image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com).
1880 U.S. census, population schedule, NARA microfilm, Year: 1880; Census Place: Union, Cabell, West Virginia; Roll: 1401; Family History Film: 1255401; Page: 202D; Enumeration District: 019; digital image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com).
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Huffstutler, Barry, Doors to the Past (http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~wvcccfhr/index.htm), Kyle Cemetery page; Cemeteries page; Accessed 2017. http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~wvcccfhr/cemeteries/kyle/kyle.htm.
Lambert, Fred B., compiler, "F.B. Lambert Genealogical & Historical Collections", Bloomingdale minutes..., NBK 5, BX 6; MS 76; Marshall University Morrow Library Special Collections.
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Mud River Baptist Church Cemetery (Ona, WV), Elizabeth (Meehling) Woodard & C.F Meehling; Photos taken 5 Mar 2017 by Benjamin Woodard.
Rowsey, Jeanette, The Lost Village of Barboursville: Unsung and Vanishing History of the "Best Little Village in West Virginia" (Huntington, WV: JRC Publishing, 2013), Chapter 6, "Four Golden Years (1849-1852)", Page 79, "Portrait of a Virginia River Town at Mid-Century". Cabell County Library System, 975.442.
Rowsey, Jeanette, The Lost Village of Barboursville: Unsung and Vanishing History of the "Best Little Village in West Virginia" (Huntington, WV: JRC Publishing, 2013), Chapter 9, Pages 152-159, "Barboursville Babylon". Cabell County Library System, 975.442.
Rowsey, Jeanette, The Lost Village of Barboursville: Unsung and Vanishing History of the "Best Little Village in West Virginia" (Huntington, WV: JRC Publishing, 2013), Chapter 18, "Epilogue: 'Twas Ever Thus...", Pages 448-449, "Cabell County Court House (1852-1996) and Methodist Episcopal Church South (1884-1996)". Cabell County Library System, 975.442.
Various maps accessed at https://mapping.cabellassessor.com/maps/
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Woodard, Benjamin, Kenova, WV, Information from trip; Trip to White Gate Cemetery revealed that there is no marked grave; 31 May 2016.
Woodard, Manford E. and Clarissia E.M. Woodard; report to M. Wayne Woodard, 1956; Revised 1985 for Kenneth L. Woodard by M. Wayne Woodard; Original Notebook held by Benjamin Woodard, Kenova, WV.
Woodard, M. Wayne & Helen (Woodard) Linville, Benjamin Woodard, compiler (Interviews); On the Meehlings, by two of their great-grandchildren.
WV State Archives, "Vertical Surname Files"; folder: "Meehling", vertical files; WV State Archives, Charleston, WV; Photo copy of newspaper clipping; The Post Herald, Beckley, WV, 11 & 12 May 1965; "Sensational Cabell Murder Trial Recalled" by Shirley Donnelly.
WV State Penitentiary Biennial Reports, WV State Penitentiary. Transcript of 1884 report by Harry Forrester, provided by e-mail from Harry Forrester
NOTES: There was at least one other lynching around the same time in Kanawha County, and this is reflected in many “Mob Law is Taking Over!” articles. Many articles are very sensationalist, and it is hard to discern the truth, specifically about the lynching. I have found several other articles from Newspapers.com and the WV State Archives, but they had no additional facts from the sources listed above.